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How to Survive Building a New House

how to survive building a new house

As I mentioned in my What a Year post, we moved into a new house last summer –July 2013 to be exact. Now that we’ve been in the house for one year, things are starting to settle down. I unpacked the last boxes in May 2014. The dust has finally settled and I’m ready to discuss this huge project. In this post I’m going to outline how to survive building a new house, or, how I enjoyed the renovation of this historic Edwardian gem.

elana's dining room

It’s summer now, and we are enjoying the fruits of our labor (that’s our dining room above, we use it unless we’re eating at the kitchen counter depicted below). We broke ground on the project in March 2012 and for the next 17 months construction went at breakneck speed –I kid you not, our contractor worked quickly and we only had a few delays, which was superb for a construction project of this size and scale. In the future I will discuss the construction and decorating processes in more detail, for now I’m going to chat about how a couple can build or renovate a house successfully, i.e., without getting a divorce.

Thankfully, my husband and I realized that since we are both alphas, it might not be best to work together closely on the gut renovation of a 100 year old house. We knew from several remodeling and decorating projects that we had done over the years that this type of process could engender stress, frustration, and disagreement.

The biggest question in this type of project is how does one person manage a rebuild so that both people are comfortable and satisfied? My husband and I worked out a system which was smooth and harmonious. I made all day-to-day decisions. I selected materials, winnowing down numerous choices until there were only two or three, then he made the final decisions. I am a perfectionist when it comes to details and visuals and can often get caught up in indecision (I spent far too long choosing the kitchen pulls in the photo below), and my husband has unbelievable taste and is very decisive, so this was a great system that really fit our needs as a couple. I think it also helps that we are in our late 40’s and have been together for more than two decades. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done a project of this scale 10 years ago. I did not have the life experience or self-knowledge that I needed when I was 30-something to pull this project off.

elana's kitchen pulls

The house, built in 1904, had undergone several renovations during the last 100 plus years. We decided to remove all of the choppy additions and took it down to the studs. There were no walls or floors when we were done gutting it. We used ladders to get from floor to floor and carefully walked on beams at times to get around.

I decided our project would be a green renovation, which was important to me on a both a political and personal level. After graduation from college I worked at the Environmental Defense Fund, and at age 26 founded an environmental consulting company called ecosav, so building a green house was a dream of mine for not years, but decades. It was also a medical necessity for me given that I have multiple chemical sensitivities. Towards the end of the project when all of the finishes were being installed, I didn’t need to wear a gas mask to enter the construction site. Hallelujah. Even better, my family would not be exposed to toxic paints, sealers, and finishes that typically off-gas after a move-in for years to come. I installed a point of entry water filtration system so that not only drinking water would be clean and free of toxins such as chlorine, but our water for bathing would be as well.  I also had an infra-red sauna built into our attic (I’ll share more details on this, as well as the health benefits of infra-red light at a later date).

In addition to No-VOC finishes, we undertook the massive digging of a geothermal well (our property is one-third of an acre) in order to create an ecologically friendly system for heating and cooling; and we put radiant heat in the gorgeous recycled hardwood floors. I also used recycled barn wood to build out a craft room in our attic (see photo below).

elana's craft room

Throughout the house I used upcycled pieces (such as the orange chair in the photo above), many of which I found in my hunts at thrift stores and flea markets. I also shopped online for vintage finds on etsy, that’s where I purchased the old IBM clock in the picture below.

elana's family room

Further, we went to great lengths to restore various aspects of the house that had fallen into a bit of disrepair over the years. A team of masons re-pointed the intricate brick work that envelopes the exterior of this historic Edwardian gem. In fact, the masons were a darling family of incredible craftsmen –a father and his three sons (plus their adorable dog) lovingly repaired the house brick by brick.

Of course, the kitchen is the heart of our house and we have already made so many amazing memories in it, cooking together as a family. The boys and their friends sit on the stools below, gathered around the center island after school and I make all of these gregarious growing guys (now teenagers) loads of food. I shot the photo below at night with my iphone–I’m surprised at how well it turned out.

elana's kitchen

I’ve shared quite a few photos of our newly renovated house on Instagram (follow me here) and have received numerous requests from readers to write about this project here on my website. I’m a little shy, so it took me a year to share this and let you into my home. I hope you enjoy the pictures as well as the story of our renovation. If you did, I might even come out of my shell a bit more and share some other aspects of this delightful project that I not only survived, but learned so much from and enjoyed immensely.


posted on July 31, 2014

  1. Lexi's Clean Kitchen @ lexiscleankitchen.com

    Absolutely beautiful! We talk about one day building and I know I am nowhere near ready for a task like that. Kudos to you and the hubby!

  2. Sherrie

    So lovely! Thanks for sharing your life with us! I am close to a diagnosis after seven years of searching. I love your recipes and look forward to making many more of them.

  3. Tori

    It is breathtakingly (if that’s really a word) beautiful. I loved the story.

  4. Gabby Loves Veggies @ gabbylovesveggies.tumblr.com

    We bought an old brick house from 1929, it was a clean slate. No AC/Heating unit, no flooring, no kitchen. It was a labor of love and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

    But the process was terrible, it was when we first went Vegetarian and we were using the bathtub as a sink and our toaster oven as our only way to cook.

  5. Cher | Paleo + Life @ paleopluslife.com

    Wow. Your home is absolutely stunning. Thanks for sharing! I’d love to know more.

  6. Anita

    It is a beautiful house. My dh & I are looking at building a 4 square arts and crafts. My only question is.. Why not wood? My dh hates it when people paint over wood. I love the warmth as well (both of us are architectural techs)

  7. Audrey

    Beautiful home Elana! The kitchen is exceptionally beautiful! Thank you for sharing with all of us. When you are ready to share more, I will be ready to take a look.

  8. Rebecca

    Lovely! I enjoyed reading about this process and would love to hear more!

  9. Teresa

    You all have done an absolutely beautiful job. Thank you so much for sharing this part of your life with us!

  10. Yes! I loved the post. I’d love to hear more :)

  11. Holly

    Thank you for sharing. What a beautiful home. I would love it if you would post more about it.

  12. Lynne langmaid

    Lovely Elana. I walk by there with dog almost daily Elegance and simplicity of landscaping so nice

  13. Wow! What an awesome home, I am so envious! My husband and I recently decided our goal one day is to have a green home. We looked into geothermal for our current house but it won’t pan out. One day though! I am so inspired by your home and am thrilled to know that dream can come true. Thank you for sharing :)

  14. Lovely, gorgeous home! I would love to hear more about the non-voc finishes and products you used in your home project. If love to see more of the story, as well. It’s always been a dream of mine to reno an old home.

  15. Laurina Flikweert

    What a beautiful house you have there and great taste in furniture. Still having time to put up yummy recipes while going through this renovation as well
    . Great respect !!

  16. Sharon Kelland

    Great home Elana. I would love to hear more about how you managed your health during this stressful time. Like, when it was hectic, what ” a day in the life of Elana” may have looked like. You seemed to have found a good balance and i’d love to hear about it. Thanks

  17. Stephanie

    Elana – thank you for sharing your beautiful home. I love it! My partner and I often talk about building a house together and I wondered if our relationship would survive and now I have a better understanding on how to accomplish this. Thanks again!

  18. Cathi

    May you be blessed with many wonderful memories in this gorgeous labor of love.
    I feel a kinship with you….my husband and I fully renovated a historic Tudor and spent 15 years there and then 6 years ago went on to build a home that we basically designed from the ground up…and we are still happily married! It can be done!!!
    Love your stories, love your recipes, love your committment to sharing life-changing information! God bless you and your family!

  19. Katherine Kelley

    You did a lovely job! I hope you enjoy it for many years.

  20. Betty Anne

    Oh please, more details and more pictures!!

  21. Beautiful and quite the under taking. As a licensed contractor, I can easily say renovations like this are a lot more challenging than building new. Well done and very enjoyable post. Thanks for letting us in!

  22. Lisa

    Thank you so much for letting us inside. Your home is so lovely. I too would like to hear more about non-voc or any green challenges you experienced thru this process. I personally adore Edwardian- my wedding ring is an antique piece created in that period. Love everything about that design style. Great post!

  23. Elizabeth King

    Thank you so much for letting us tour some of your home. It is beautiful & I am sure you will have many happy years & memories there.

  24. What a gorgeous home! Your hard work certainly paid off!

  25. Charlotte Moore

    What a beautiful home. Thanks for sharing!!! Loved reading about it. Would love to see and read more about it.

  26. Sheila Perl

    Your home is gorgeous, Elana and I loved hearing about the voc finishes and how you and your husband were able to work together! I hope you share more about it, it is so interesting!
    All that and all your fabulous recipes, you are amazing!! :)

  27. Rhonda

    I love to read stories about old house restoration! Thanks so much for sharing, and I, for one, would enjoy hearing more about your lovely home. I’m especially interested in learning more about your water filtration system, which we have researched but not sure what’s best.

  28. Jeanne

    We’re building a home now. What water filtration system did you choose to install?

  29. Susan

    Elena – lovely. I really enjoyed your comments on how you shared the decision making. Great. I was one of the ones whose marriage was made more tense by building a house. Tell us more!!!

  30. Christy

    Thank you so much for sharing! I can’t wait to see the rest. I am interested in all that you are willing to share. Your home is beautiful and inspiring, as well as your food choices. ;)

  31. Jen

    I never comment (I’m also a little shy!) but please, please, pretty please share more about this wonderful renovation!!!!! It’s wonderful to see such thought and caring and love put into a project :)

  32. Absolutely beautiful!!! You are an amazing hard working woman with such creative talent! Thanks for sharing. Would love to know whom you purchased your furniture from since you are so well versed environmentally. PS – love your recipes :)

  33. Mom B

    What a beautiful home! Thank you for sharing.

  34. Irene Adamson

    It is beautiful !!! Enjoy every square inch in good health and in peace!! BTW, I am having a piece of your Chocolate Pecan pie as I write this! Yummy!! Thanks!

  35. Le

    SO lovely, Please tell us about your water filtration! We need to put a system in and are befuddled by the options.

  36. Becky

    Please share more! I’m dying to know more! I have the same dream, and don’t know if it will ever happen for me, but I’d love to live it through you!

  37. joanna

    Beautiful home Elana. i was wondering how you got so much natural light with all the covered porch around your home? We have a covered porch in our front and back and i feel like we don’t get enough sunlight streaming in.

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